Bill and Phil do radio

I’m a newcomer to Homecoming Radio - a weekly radio show from Gaither’s mothership that stitches highlight clips mostly from old Homecoming Friends videos into an hour-long format hosted by Gaither. Actually I’m not so much a newcomer as a lurker (the two most recent broadcasts are available for download at Salem Radio; I don’t recommend it for dial-up users).Anyway, Homecoming Radio, which is unaffiliated with the streaming feed available to Gaithernet subscribers, is (as far as I can tell) off to a decent start: the show is produced by Phil Brower (the same guy that provides the voice for Phil the Producer at NQC) and is distributed to something like 300 tower-feed affiliates around the country. And a lot of those are secular (that is, country) stations.

Frankly, I’m surprised it took Gaither this long to get into the radio act. While Bill and his son-in-law Barry have, evidently, been eyeing radio for a while, they’ve held back longer than one might expect for someone in Gaither’s position. As you’d expect from a Gaither production, the thing is more or less slickly produced, though there are a few ticks here and there. While the music is solidly of the genre that the Homecoming roadshow has popularized, the format is rather quirky and frankly, a bit cheesy (certainly cheesier than the average Homecoming concert). I listened to two different weekly broadcasts, and each had a chumpy “theme” - the first was an elementary-school caliber “celestial” (or maybe it was aeronautical) motif to the narration; the second was an Olympic style broadcast, so that Phil the Producer and Bill would thread together the show with silly little themed banter related to aeronautics or the Olympics. Uh, ok. Thus in the celestial show, Bill says something like “we’re off and flying high,” or “these next singers are all skywalkers,” or Phil says, “He can fly with the best of them,” or “this mission’s only getting started,” “we’re about to return to earth” (near the end of the show). During the Olympic show, similar insipidity: it was a “gold medal edition,” and singers were “gold medal winners” and Bill was the “head trainer” and “this team’s only getting warmed up; the best events are yet to come,” and one popular group has “crossed the finish line more times than any body else.” What? Ugh. I mean, is this Radio Romper Room? Honestly. Finally, in the “what thuh …?” column is Jeff Steele shilling for a telecommunications firm that sends a portion of each customer’s bill to the SGMA, because “everything we do can have a positive impact for god’s kingdom.” These days it seems you’re more likely to encounter Steele asking for money for someone (the Freemans) or something (this telecommunications outfit) than you are actually .. oh, I don’t know … singing and stuff. Point is, as the only non-Gaither commercial I heard, it was decidedly out of place.

Then there’s the idiosyncratic editing of the show. As one dj put it - a dj whose station opted not to air the show “because 1) the very wordy and legal[ese] Salem agreement left too much control in the hands of Salem and 2) the show left something to be desired” -

some of the songs just fade out mid-verse! The timing is not that great… I mean, one of the biggest lessons young radio people (should) learn is to back-time and to only use music fill as a last resort. Well, if the show used instrumental fill that would even be one thing - but if you’ll listen for any amount of time, you’ll hear vocally sung songs fade out in the middle of a verse. Talk about odd sounding! I remember hearing “It’s All Right To Have A Good Time” fade out in the middle of Kirk’s solo verse… you never heard the chorus!

To be honest, I only heard this happen twice in two hours of listening, but it was rather conspicuous and mildly annoying. More than this, I was struck by the strange concept clash of the show’s style. Homecoming Radio tries to mimic the live experience of a Homecoming concert (with applause tracks between songs and all that) at the same time it tries to be this faux live radio show (which are two very different things). So, for instance, Kim Hopper sings a solo (from an unspecified time; all the songs are plucked willy nilly from a mix of Homecoming archives and recordings of Homecoming friends), as if she’s live here on the Homecoming Radio Show, but then the next segment is a Bill Gaither doing a phone interview with Dean and Kim about their new baby and how much Gaithernet has been a conduit for support to the Hoppers in the aftermath of Lexus Jazz Hopper’s premature birth. So clearly something is canned, and yet everything is threaded together with same disembodied applause coming from the motherhship or that big can of applause in the sky or somewhere … I don’t know. Now here’s the odd part: all the while during this interview, just like during the regularly singing portions of the show, Gaither’s voice is covered over with a ton of reverb, as if he’s conducting the interview live from a stage somewhere in radioland and yet … this is not a live simulcast of Grand Ole Opry or something like that … it’s all just very strange. It’s hard to know what Bill and Phil want us to imagine.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my two hours of free listening. Sure, the Homecoming style is as predictable as Hee-Haw. Yes, Jessy Dixon is still screaming and wailing (every Jessy-Dixon ending concludes with a high squeal and low moan) and, as one reader put it, hogging the mic. Of course Russ Taff is still oversinging most everything he’s assigned. And how much more scratchy and raw can Sheri Easter’s voice get before it stops being earthily countrified and ends up pure sand and gravel? But Gaither still manages to come up with the some of the most interesting arrangements of old standards, and he’s unmatched in melding a compelling gospel variety show even when it’s not always that good musically (and here, mind you, he’s doing it all out of scraps from the last 15 years of Homecoming concerts, more or less). The knock-your-head-off moment in the two hours I heard was Delores (aka Mom) Winans doing a jazz-at-the-bistro version of “I Must Tell Jesus.” Tell Jesus, tell your friends. For all I care, tell your enemies. This is one fine arrangement sang by a true gospel matriarch and the arranging is beyond enviable. Other highlights: The Nelons from the Jerry/Kelly era doing “Walk Right Out of the This Valley” (gosh they were untouchable) and the old Talley Trio doing “Hallelujah, Praise the Lamb” (with the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir from their farewell live concert). Great stuff indeed.

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